Keirston (KP) Parham, CPS, CPSS, CWF, is the lead recovery and peer services coordinator for UPMC Western Behavioral Health. Using his own life experience as a reference, he provides support, mentoring, and guidance to individuals with mental health, psychological trauma, or substance use challenges.

KP is a certified peer specialist, peer support specialist, and wraparound facilitator. He oversees recovery initiatives and peer services and educates and trains inpatient and outpatient staff members on recovery values and principles. He also focuses on integrating and using peer specialists, stigma reduction, recovery planning, and the importance of self-care and wellness tools.

KP plays a vital role in recruiting and training peer and recovery specialists to support positive, strength-based, individualized recovery throughout UPMC.

What was your life like growing up? When did you begin to experience mental health challenges?

I didn’t have words to explain it back then, but when I was just five years old, I saw something powerful that made me realize I was meant to help people.

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I was watching a nature show about baby sea turtles. I was in tears because as the babies hatched, seagulls and pelicans swooped in to eat them. But amazingly, some of them actually survived. My mother saw me crying and asked, “Why are you watching this?” I told her, “I need to see the ones that make it.” Seeing that survival is possible became a source of hope and mission for me.

I grew up not liking me. In fact, I hated myself. I blamed myself for things that happened in my life, even though they usually were entirely out of my control. I began acting in ways that weren’t good or healthy. I wanted to die.

The depression and anxiety I experienced then still follow me to this day. The difference is I now understand that pain. I want people with similar challenges to know that they are not alone — that we can give them access to others who care with their heart.

You say the anxiety and depression of your youth are still with you, yet they are lightened by the work you do with others.

What I thought was a personal weakness turned out to be a gift: I’m able to connect with people when others can’t. As I was growing up, other kids felt comfortable talking to me. It took me years to figure out it was because I didn’t judge them. They didn’t know the depth of my own despair, but when they looked into my eyes, I think they recognized their pain in me.

Later in life, I learned that my eyes could reflect hope. That led me to do crisis and recovery work and become a proud peer. I learned how valuable it can be for someone to share their story. You can connect with their spirit and heart by making yourself vulnerable to someone in crisis. As a wise peer once said to me, “Empathy is the mother of hope.”

You’re credited with starting peer navigation at UPMC. Can you explain what that is?

Curt Bell, RN, BSN, project manager at UPMC Addiction Medicine Services, and I are the founders of peer navigation. Peer navigation brings people with lived experiences to the recovery team. Peers are individuals who have progressed in their own recovery — at least one or two years out. They help remove barriers for people getting services and serve as role models as they begin their recovery journey. Peers also play an important role in educating and supporting the clinical staff as they provide care.

Many people are surprised to learn that addiction is a mental health issue. At UPMC Western, we follow the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) recovery model, which encompasses anything that affects a person’s mental, psychological, and emotional self. That includes alcohol and substance use.

As peer counselors, we intentionally make ourselves vulnerable to help other people. By sharing our stories, we can help someone in recovery face and plan for their triggers.

Peer support is all about having living, breathing examples of what’s possible around you. Peers stand up and validate what you’re experiencing because they’ve been there. When you have a peer while you’re in recovery, you have a role model whose own recovery offers the possibility of hope.

How did your lived experiences prepare you to become a peer specialist?

Self-blame is the heaviest weight a human being can carry. For years, I held myself in contempt. When I finally was able to look up, I realized it was my own hand pushing me down.

I became a father at age 27 — a beautiful baby boy. I didn’t think much of me, but I helped create the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I began to see myself in a new way.

I became a counselor at a residential facility that supports children who have experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect. I saw the pain they went through. I became their champion.

I never gave up on any of the children I worked with. I do that now with the adults we care for at UPMC Western. It’s easy to want to protect and care for babies and children who have been hurt. But when people see other people in crisis, too often the response is, “Oh, they’re just addicts,” or “Oh, they’re back again.”

And, of course, we live in a culture that tells everyone, “Hey, if you’re stressed out, if things are bad, that’s okay. Come to happy hour and relax!” We’re encouraged to escape and self-medicate, not deal with our problems.

In an article you co-authored, you said that peer counselors help remind people in health care that there is hope for people in recovery.

I’m going to use myself as an example. I am living, breathing proof that the work of mental health professionals makes a difference every day. I’m the fruit of their labor.

For people who have not experienced trauma, you might think heroin or other drugs are scary — but compared to what? There’s no easy pill to take to escape the trauma that people have gone through at some point in their lives. You come to hate yourself. And if you’re in enough physical or emotional pain, you would do or take anything to make it stop. I know.

Too often, we only see the crises and the behaviors after the fact. But that’s not what started the fire. We need to do more to find out the “why” behind their stories.

After 22 years in this field, I’ve learned that you can’t simultaneously blame someone and help them. When you blame someone, there’s a bias that comes with a reaction. But if you look for the “why,” you’re going to be more trauma-informed. You’re going to be more sensitive to the individual’s triggers and needs.

You can ask open-ended questions and use empathetic listening to find out how to make a more individualized plan centered around the person. This is not cookie-cutter. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s what we do at UPMC Western.

What are some of the barriers underrepresented individuals face in getting mental health help?

In my culture, there’s a huge stigma associated with mental health issues in the Black and Brown communities. Simply because we’re born in the minority, we often have negative experiences in society. As underrepresented individuals, we also face the added challenge and stress of being further marginalized when we have other life issues.

If you’re Black with a mental health diagnosis, you’re a double minority.  Each additional minority group that you belong to makes it harder and harder to get the culturally competent care you need. All that’s in addition to the financial and transportation barriers many minority individuals face.

Our goal is to ensure that everyone — regardless of race, culture, religion, gender, or age — can receive quality care, help, and support in their time of need.

What would you share with someone who’s going through a crisis and needs help?

My message is simple: If you are in pain, know you are not alone. I and many others have had similar experiences. We are here to help and support you. Please reach out if you need help. We care about you.

I also ask that you try not to carry self-blame. It will only weigh on you and wear you down. But I know from personal experience that’s not easy to do.

So, if you have to carry that self-blame a little longer, please don’t carry it alone. Let us help take some of the burden away. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s okay not to be OK. It’s okay for you to be you. But there are people who have been through what you are experiencing, and they care. Let us help you.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.